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Techlicious 05/09/2016

Review of the Quell Wearable Pain Relief Device

Being “drug-free” usually references illegal substance abuse, but prescriptions for chronic pain can lead to damaging dependency as well. For those eager to try a pain reliever that doesn’t require popping pills, wearable technology and neuroscience may have an answer.

NeuroMetrix claims to have found a workable solution that could apply to anyone dealing with chronic pain from illness, injuries or disability. The Quell ($249 on Amazon) is a device that you wear on your calf, but treats pain anywhere—your back, shoulder, knee—using electro-stimulation to provide relief through the body’s own internal painkillers.

On its base premise alone, you could be forgiven for viewing this as pie in the sky out of an infomercial, but there is evidence to back it up, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved it through the 510(k) process as a Class II Medical Device for chronic pain relief. Where it’s placed also makes it easy to discount Quell’s ability to provide relief. But that too is based in science.

The upper calf holds a number of different nerve endings that traverse the body. The technology in the Quell makes it a Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) unit because it essentially sends pulses through that area and up the spinal cord, triggering the brain to raise endorphins. This prevents or reduces pain signals from reaching the brain, while releasing opioids to relieve pain in the process.

Opioids are the key here. Medical research going back to the 1960s experimented with high frequency peripheral nerve stimulation to gauge how they can respond and elevate natural pain modulating chemicals in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). Without getting into too much medical terminology, hydrocodone, meperidine and oxycodone are prescription opioids that can do the same thing, except they do so through a different receptor in the body than electro-stimulation does. The results may be similar, but the path to get there isn’t necessarily the same, according to a whitepaper written by Dr. Shai Gozani, founder and CEO at NeuroMetrix.

In other words, the pills could have side-effects, while the Quell shouldn’t.

As opioid levels increase, they stick around for about 40 minutes after the stimulation ceases. This is why the Quell stimulates for one hour, and then automatically turns off on its own for another hour, before turning back on again. The on-off process allows the opioids to keep working until they go back to baseline levels, avoiding overstimulation.

While there are other over-the-counter TENS units available, like the Icy Hot line, none of the others are designed for chronic pain and all-day wear, including while sleeping. And, none of the others qualify for insurance reimbursement.

Using Quell Pain Relief

Getting set up and started is a breeze. The flexible sports band includes a holster for the device, which also has an open slit on either side — one for the power button, the other revealing two clips. The latter are meant to attach to a strip of gels that adhere to the skin, holding it all in place, while also pushing through the electric pulses the device generates.

The strap has to be worn on the upper calf (left or right, doesn’t matter), and go through a quick calibration process consisting of holding the power button for five seconds each time to increase pulse strength to a comfortable level of tolerance that doesn’t feel like being shocked. You should feel it work, though feel relaxed at the same time.

It’s designed to be worn anytime you need the relief, which can vary from all times of the day to instances where pain may be more prominent. This also includes during sleep, and the device has been optimized to recognize the wearer is in a slumber when the user sets it manually on the free Quell iOS or Android app, or reduces pulse strength to a gentler mode that isn’t distracting by pressing the button on the side. Wearing it during sleep is somewhat of a novelty, considering NeuroMetrix is currently the only company to have a TENS device available over the counter that is cleared for use while asleep.

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